Ferrel Guillory, one of North Carolina’s best-known journalists, told me I had reached him at the “grand headquarters” of his latest venture, EducationNC.
Like a sucker, I asked where that was.
“A room in my house,” he answered gleefully.
Welcome to the frontier of education policy and digital journalism.
Ever since the recession hit, Guillory, a former editorial page editor at the News & Observer, and Gerry Hancock, a former state senator and founder of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, have been talking about the changing landscape. They saw newspaper staffs shrinking and the state’s civic commitment to public education shifting, Guillory recalls.
They wanted to jump into the gap. In December, having lined up grants from such foundations as Z. Smith Reynolds and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, they launched EdNC, a nonpartisan online publication that strives to combine “professional journalism in the grand American tradition of a free press” with an array of opinion pieces and “elements of a think tank.” The current year’s budget is just over $500,000.
“We are having a great debate over the future of public education,” Guillory said. “We want to be in the middle of that debate.”
The staff of four, supplemented by freelancers and contributors, is bound by digital connections rather than a traditional newsroom. And the statewide publication has deep ties to Charlotte.
Editor and CEO Mebane Rash lives in Raleigh, but she’s a product of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, having attended Irwin and First Ward elementary schools, McClintock Middle and East Mecklenburg High. An attorney, she was director of law and policy for the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research when Guillory and Hancock tapped her for the new venture.
Growing up in a neighborhood that was home to some of Charlotte’s most prominent politicians formed a basis for the effort to communicate across party lines, Rash says.
“We live in a purple state now – 2.7 million of the registered voters are blue Democrats, 2 million are red Republicans, and 1.7 million are unaffiliated,” she wrote. “I could see this happening as I grew up because on my block lived Harvey Gantt, and next door to him lived Mel Watt, and two doors down from them lived Sue Myrick with her son Dan Forest. Every day of my life has been spent playing and then working across party lines. Living a bipartisan life, I have learned the importance of finding common ground and that credible research and information can change minds.”
In addition, Adam Rhew, who has worked for the Charlotte-based MeckEd, writes a weekly column on Charlotte education issues. Guilford County Superintendent Maurice “Mo” Green, who serves on the EdNC board of directors, was deputy superintendent for CMS.
EdNC shares its original reporting, along with links to other education reports, on its website and through daily email blasts. It debuted with a piece on principal pay, which Rash still ranks as one of the key issues facing the state. Some of the best-read pieces have included a recent news report on state testing changes and an elementary school principal’s reflection on her school receiving a D on the state’s new letter grades.
Some might wonder why I’m calling attention to the competition.
I’m old enough to remember when most cities had two daily newspapers and a handful of alternative weeklies. I think competition drives better journalism – and more important, I think a community benefits from a broad array of coverage.
Rash and Guillory see EdNC complementing the chorus of voices in the public education debate. They note that they share stories from “legacy media” and offer their work at no charge to newspapers.
I’m competitive enough to hope I can beat their crew on all the best stories out of Charlotte. And I’m realistic enough to know there’s so much going on in the realm of education – so many stories to tell, so much data to mine, so many ideas to explore – that none of us can exhaust the possibilities.
▪ Get news from EducationNC at www.ednc.org.
▪ Find the Observer’s Your Schools blog at www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/education/your-schools-blog.